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Distractions can be real, but distress is optional

Fairfax County criminal defense/DWI defense attorney on the power of transcending the day's bows and errors

Jan 01, 2016 Distractions can be real, but distress is optional

One sunny weekend day over twenty years ago, I excitedly put on my running shoes, and headed towards a great dirt hiking path. The path was far from smooth and, in a small ditch, I twisted my ankle for the only time in my life.  I had no choice but to limp home and put ice on my twisted ankle, which healed well within a few hours.

I do not know whether greater awareness — perhaps through regular mindfulness practice, which I had not yet discovered, at least not by that word “mindfulness” — would have helped me avoid the injury in the first place. I do know that this was another lesson that I have a choice about how upset or not I will get over this twisted ankle and other obstacles in life.

Each day, we have a choice whether to stick to the path of our great purpose and plans in life or to give into our better instincts by engaging at the same level of people angry that we do not violate the traffic laws to help get them more quickly to their destination, screaming at telephone customer service representatives not to send us back to waiting seemingly forever to select phonepad options that will get us nowhere, or steaming at a restaurant server who shows us to a Siberian table and tries to pass off stale food.

Fortunately, I got right back into my running shoes within two days after my ankle twisting, and a few years later had one of my most exhilarating runs between and over huge mounds of snow left by snowplows in the 1996 blizzard, at one point shouting in exhilaration “I am Sasquatch!” when atop one of these great snowmounds.

We can all be like a sasquatch, feeling exhilaration over mounds of snow rather than kvetching over having to find a way to move those mounds or over the snow’s getting in the way of our driving route.

Being human, we constantly are at risk of regressing back to our old patterns of reactivity, complaining, and duality. We can stew irritated about coworkers, colleagues and those we bump into who do not seem interested in transcending anything beyond just getting through another day. We can say “It is a luxury to think about our greater purpose in life when I have to find a way to pay this month’s bills first.”

People’s greater purpose does not need to be put on hold, because that purpose starts simply by internally transcending the day’s proverbial bows and arrows. We have a choice to flip the bird at a co-worker who makes fun of our new haircut, or to know such people are always going to be in our hair, if we let them. We can join colleagues in gossip, or can leave the conversation or state that we have resolved not to gossip further in our lives. We can see someone vomiting in a grocery store aisle and turn away from the stench, or can approach them or someone else to get them help and comfort.

One of my biggest challenges on this path is not to get bent out of shape when by acts of commission or omission, others do something to possibly harm my clients. Such challenges can arise with a prosecutor who goes back on his or her word and has the audacity to not care about doing so, a courthouse clerk’s office employee who gets all holier than thou about my request for hearing rescheduling information when the information is right in front of the clerk’s eyes that do not bother browsing the information, and an employee who carelessly does not send a critical document to the right address (beware in vetting job candidates).

Dethmer, Chapman & Klemp have a great self-published book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership which provides simple and effective ways — when fully practiced and applied — for staying above the line dividing being open, curious and committed to learning, rather than below the line through being closed, defensive, and committed to being right.

One of my favorite sections of The 15 Commitments addresses something as simple as how to perceive a crowded sidewalk or road. It is easy to get irritated at people bumping into you as they rush to work seemingly unawakened nor caring about anything nor anyone other than themselves, or who even seem to intentionally push those they think block their quickest way to work. We can instead shift our approach to the matter by seeing the path that gives us the opportunity to get to our destination, including whether it may simply be a better idea to cross the street or give some time to having less chance that we will constantly get bumped into.

Using the above and below-the-line approach to my above examples of challenging customer service representatives and other human challenges, I can do the following:

  • Perceive whether I am above or below the line in the first place;
  • Remember that I have enough work to do on my own lifetime development, and might have my own role in creating the obstacle, so that I am wasting energy to judge nor get upset at others’ irritating and even dangerous behavior;
  • With the person who makes fun of my haircut, I can either remain silent or tell the person: “I regret that you have chosen to say that. If it is an expression of any issues you have with me, let us talk about that. If you are bothered by my fashion or something else about me, let’s talk about it.” Here, I have held up a mirror to the speaker’s behavior, and that mirror alone may lead the speaker to back down, or else to start speaking in a more constructive way.
  • With the seemingly uncaring customer service representative, I can say: “I could really use your help, rather than being sent back to where I started with figuring out what buttons to push on my phone next and what to say to the next person who eventually next answers the phone.”
  • With the seemingly obstinate court clerk who seems reluctant to answer even the most apparently simple question, I can excuse myself and return in the hopes of scoring a better clerk, or can say “I don’t mean to sound thick with my question, but I really value your ability to be able to help me.”
  • With an employee who misdelivers an important letter, I can say: “You have some tremendous strengths. Let’s talk about what we can do together to give our clients better service than this.”
  • With a prosecutor who goes back on his work, I can say: “I want to be able to move forward with you in this and my other clients’ cases. Let’s talk about achieving our mutual interests here.”

All of the sudden with challenging situations, by not blaming, by not letting our blood pressure rise, by being fully present and fully listening, and by taking the self-responsibility level that we must take for situations, we now are gliding through life’s challenges with more agility, not wasting energy nor getting exhausted in the process, and appearing to anyone observing the interaction as someone they would want to be associated with.

In the moment of actual and potential irritation, it can be tempting to regress to our old way of doing things, by verbally cutting down the perceived trespasser (and we can often perceive incorrectly), yelling, or exploding red-faced and walking out. By acting above the line, the perceived trespasser may not automatically change his or her behavior and may even mis-perceive our approach as weakness. However, being above the line empowers the other person to not be concerned that s/he will lose face by softening his or her approach to the person who is above the line, and the person above the line is giving the perceived trespasser an opportunity to express or explain himself or herself — even if in ugly words — which often is an important approach to resolving conflicts. Without my even telling the apparent trespasser that s/he is wasting his or her nasty energy on me rather than on some country bumpkin, when I am above the line the other may realize that they will not gain advantage by taunting me.

It takes courage to give the perceived trespasser a chance to express himself or herself further when the perceived trespasser’s lips have been dripping with contempt, hatred, and even untruths. Fortunately, I learned long ago about the potential benefits of letting them speak. At the age of nine in summer day camp, and without any suggestions from others, I asked an eight-year-old camper who frequently taunted me with his words: “Why don’t you like me?” He answered: “I don’t dislike you.” For the rest of the summer we got along great and sometimes hung out together.

For me, a critical part of proceeding above the line is (1) daily practicing mindfulness, being fully present at all times, and (2) being non-dualistic, where I know that my own sense of well being does not depend on factors and outcomes external to me.

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